Social Distancing Spins – Day 60

By Joel Francis

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) Did you ever stop to think that maybe the biggest difference between country and rock and roll is marketing? I’m not saying fans of Sleep or Deafhaven are likely to warm up to Garth Brooks, or vice versa, but music is littered with crossover artists, from Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to Aaron Lewis and Darius Rucker. Elvis Presley may have started the trend, debuting on Sun Records with music that was equal parts rock, country and blues. In the post-monoculture landscape where streaming reigns supreme, genre distinctions mean even less. Bret Michaels, Jon Bon Jovi and Lionel Richie can tour as country artists while performers who started in the country bucket like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood can move seamlessly into being pop stars. And honestly, what is the difference between Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert? Or Kid Rock and herpes? Sorry, that was a low blow, but I couldn’t resist.

I bring all this up, because in 1968 these distinctions were a very big deal. The Byrds upset a lot of people when they performed on the Grand Ole Opry. Their hippie hair was too long for the Nashville crowd and their music too twangy for the hippies. The group was banned from the Opry when they dared to deviate from the prearranged setlist. Oh, the humanity! Instead, the band nearly broke up, with new recruit Gram Parsons leaving first. Bass player Chris Hillman and drummer Kevin Kelley, another short-timer left at the end of the year, with Hillman joining up with Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers. As usual, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn was left to pick up the pieces and assemble another formation of the Byrds. McGuinn’s group released another six albums before packing it in. None approach the influence of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Parsons and Hillman used Sweetheart as a stepping stone, building a musical empire that spawned not only mainstream successes like Eagles and the outlaw country movement. That legacy is still obvious today in the music of Lucinda Williams, Sturgil Simpson and the Highwomen.

Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (2006) The prolific Wu-Tang Clan MC Ghostface Killah drops so many albums, pseudo-albums/mixtapes and collaborations it can be daunting to separate the wheat from the chaff. Fishscale, Ghostface’s fifth album is a gritty masterpiece. Ghostface has an amazing eye for detail, making ever scenario across the album crackle to life like a short film or story. Production from Doom, Just Blaze, Pete Rock and J Dilla make the songs both accessible and memorable. Vignettes about drug deals, street life and women blur together to create a cinematic 65-minute arc. Check out the image this paints from the song “Kilo”: “A hundred birds go out, looking like textbooks/When they wrapped and stuffed/Four days later straight cash, two million bucks.” Or this childhood memory from “Whip You With a Strap”: “(T)hen came Darryl Mack lightin’ all the reefer up/Baby caught a contact, I’m trying to tie my sneaker up/I’m missing all the loops, strings going in the wrong holes/It feels like I’m wobbling, look at all these afros.”

Someone once said that Bruce Springsteen songs don’t begin and end as much as they zoom in a focus on a story, then gradually fade back out. Ghostface’s storytelling is easily on that same level for Fishscale. Along the way, the gets help from several members from the Wu-Tang Clan. The entire Clan assembles for “9 Milli Bros” and Ne-Yo pops by to sing the hook on “Back Like That,” a Top 20 Hot R&B hit. Even with these assists, Fishscale is Ghostface’s triumph and should be part of every hip hop library.

Batfangs – self-titled (2018) The women in Batfang live in a universe where Van Halen and Def Leppard are indie rock icons. The nine songs on the duo’s debut album, all written by singer/guitarist Betsy Wright, with some help from drummer Laura King, pay tribute to the 1980s hair band anthems that continue to provide atmosphere in Trams Ams and strip clubs today. At just 25 minutes, Batfangs know how to love ‘em and leave ‘em. Two years on, I’m hoping their album wasn’t just a one-night stand.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984) It’s hard to believe that Stevie Ray Vaughan gifted fans with three studio albums and a live record – the majority of his catalog – in less time than a presidential term. Couldn’t Stand the Weather was Double Trouble’s second album and if it feels like a disappointment after their debut Texas Flood, it is only because Texas Flood claimed so much territory. Lightning-fast guitar heroics can only be a surprise one time. After that, they are expected.

Vaughan didn’t write many songs for this album, but the ones he did are gems. The white hot instrumental “Scuttle Buttin’” sets up the title song, another original, nicely. Vaughan also wrote the last two songs on the album. “Stag’s Swang,” the last number, shows off another tool in Vaughan’s formidable arsenal – jazz guitar.

The four covers are all spectacular. Vaughan owns Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The slow blues “Tin Pan Alley” couldn’t be more different from the Hendrix cover, but Vaughan is right at home there, too. “Cold Shot” was released as a single and became a Top 40 rock radio hit.

Couldn’t Stand the Weather clocks in at eight tracks and slightly less than 40 minutes. This might make the Weather seem slight in the shadow of Texas Flood, but it remains an indispensable chapter in the book of a consummate blues man that ended way too early.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 39

By Joel Francis

Cabin fever has taken hold, but let’s not replace it with a real fever. Stay in and stay safe, my friends.

Bob Marley and the Wailers – Rastaman Vibration (1976) Bob Marley had a lot to prove with Rastaman Vibration as former Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer also released their solo debuts that year. But dissonance in the Wailers camp turned to delight for music fans, because all three albums are reggae classics. (We looked at Tosh’s Legalize It yesterday and will likely examine Wailers’ Blackheart Man tomorrow.) Of course, Marley was the biggest star at the time and as such Rastaman Vibration had the greatest resonance. The eighth Marley album, Rastaman Vibration has some of the reggae legend’s best political songs. “Johnny Was” strikes at the casual violence that allows stray bullets to kill innocent bystanders. “Rat Race” calls out a suspected attempted by the CIA to subvert Jamaican politics. The best of them all, though – and arguably Marley’s greatest political song ever – is “War.” As Marley recites Halie Selassie’s 1963 address to the United Nations general assembly the reggae groove behind him simmers, gradually adding backing vocalists and horns. Selassie’s words remain powerful today: “That until the basic human rights/are equally guaranteed to all/without regard to race/this a war.” The song took on added meaning when Sinead O’Connor performed an a cappella version on Saturday Night Live, then tore up a photo of the pope to priests abusing children.

Rastaman Vibration isn’t without light-hearted moments, but songs like “Cry to Me” and “Positive Vibration” are come up short when matched against Marley triumphs “No Woman No Cry” and “Three Little Birds.” The funniest moment in the album comes from the suggestion printed inside the faux burlap textured gatefold sleeve: “This album jacket is great for cleaning herb.”

Marilyn Maye – A Taste of “Sherry!” (1967) Marilyn Maye is a treasure. She started performing around Kansas in the 1930s as a child and had her own live radio show as a teenager. In 1966, Maye was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy (Tom Jones won). Across her seven decade recording career, Maye has appeared on The Tonight Show more than any other singer. To be honest, Maye’s style of jazz/cabaret singing usually isn’t my cup of tea, but after watching her perform at a local jazz festival several years ago I was converted. Her magic and mastery onstage doesn’t completely translate to this album, one of her earliest, but it is a great reminder of an incredible talent from a bygone generation.

The Libertines – Up the Bracket (2002) One of the greatest British punk albums exploded into the garage rock revival populated by the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the White Stripes and a bunch of other decent bands we’ve all forgotten about. The Libertines stood out in this landscape populated by loud guitars and snotty attitudes by being a bit more in-your-face and noisy without being off-putting or obnoxious (well, OK, they could be obnoxious). Blessed with cover artwork that recalled The Clash’s “White Riot,” they did one better and got Clash guitarist Mick Jones to produce the album as well. The result is an aggressive, tuneful romp with catchy songs that manages to live up to its title, British slang for a punch in the throat.

Prince – Dirty Mind (1980) Before “Little Red Corvette” and “Let’s Go Crazy” made him a superstar, Prince was a just hard-working funk prodigy hailing from the Upper Midwest (or nowhere, by the standards of the suits on the coasts). After proving that he could handle all the instruments himself on his debut, For You, Prince was hungry for even more control and commercial success on his second, self-titled release. He achieved both goals. Dirty Mind invested all the victories from the first two albums and emerged as the first album Prince recorded in his native Minneapolis with the local musicians previously in his touring band.

Dirty Mind contains all of Prince’s calling cards: carefree pop – “Uptown,” “When You Were Mind” – sexual controversy – “Sister,” “Head” – and a mélange of genres that roamed from new wave to soul and from rock to funk across little more than half an hour. Dirty Mind was the first classic album of Prince’s career and it remains a must-own record today.

John Legend and The Roots – Wake Up! (2010) When this album came out a decade ago, Barak Obama had been sworn in as the first black president in American history and the Tea Party were still calling themselves tea baggers and had yet to take power in the halls of congress. It is important to establish the political context into which Wake Up! was released, because this collaboration between John Legend and The Roots is a very political anthem. The best band in hip hop and the soul crooner selected 11 largely unknown soul protest songs and recast them for this new (Obama) era. As always, The Roots are impeccable and the carefully selected guests add gravitas with their performances. Legend is a capable singer but I can’t help wish that Raphael Saadiq or D’Angelo were helming the project instead. There are several times – particularly during the lengthy version of Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and “Hard Times” (a song Curtis Mayfield wrote for Baby Huey, who we discussed back on Day 31) – where Legend’s voice is too smooth and lacks the depth to bring the anger and desperation of the lyrics fully to life. But perfect should never be the enemy of good and Wake Up! is very good indeed. It is also sadly all too relevant.

Blakroc – self-titled (2009) The words “Black Keys” only appear once on this album, in small print inside the gatefold. That’s too bad, because fans of the blues-turned-arena band would probably find a lot to like here. True, Dan Auerbach cedes his vocals to a dozen or so MCs, but the musical guts of this record are the undeniable – and unmistakable – guitar and drums grooves that have powered the duo’s rock releases. The pair provide some very Wu Tang-inspired backing for the RZA and Pharoahe Monch on “Dollaz and Sense.” The collaborations with Diplomat Jim Jones are some of few times when the traditional Keys sensibilities cut through. Jones guests with Mos Def on “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)” and appears with Nicole Wray and Billy Danze on “What You Do To Me.” Whether you are a hip hop head or rock fan, there is plenty of gold in Blakroc.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 20

By Joel Francis

O.V. Wright – Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose (1977) O.V. Wright is the greatest soul singer you’ve never heard. Wright had some chart success in the mid-to-late 1960s, but a prison term for narcotics sidelined his career. When Wright got out he cut several albums for Hi Records, the home of Al Green and Anne Peebles. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose was Wright’s first record post-incarceration and it has the pent-up power of a man finally able to cut loose. Hi Rhythm, the studio house band, provides the perfect support throughout. The album is barely longer than half an hour, but it is consistently superb throughout. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose is definitely work seeking out.

Wu-Tang Clan – Iron Flag (2001) Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is Staten Island hip hop collective’s best album, but Iron Flag is my favorite. Released just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, every MC is on point here to protect their city. Running under an hour at 12 tracks and no skits, this is a focused, fierce Clan. Blaxploitation horns power “In the Hood” (which starts after a brief introduction) and the single “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” a track so strong it threatens to jump out of the speakers and start a fight. Method Man’s “Y’all Been Warned” pivots on a simple keyboard and guitar sample. Boasting has long been a staple of hip hop, but the braggadocio here takes on a deeper significance in the wake of 9/11. Or as Ghostface Killah puts it on “Rules:” “Together we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” We should be so lucky as to have him in charge.

Booker T. and the MGs – McLemore Avenue (1970) The Fab Four cast a long shadow. Here the Stax Records house band – and hitmakers on their own – pay tribute to Abbey Road by naming their album after the street where Stax resides. The album is three long medleys and a stand-alone cover of “Something.” A 15-minute track comprising the final medley on Abbey Road kicks things off. It’s a bit odd to hear “The End” so early in the album but ultimately not a big deal. The second side encompasses roughly the rest of Abbey Road’s flip side, with the exception of the closing medley that opens McLemore Avenue. Got that? The musicianship is stellar. Booker T.’s organ does most of the heavy lifting with the melodies, but Steve Cropper’s guitar always comes in at the right moments to help out. The rhythm section of Duck Dunn and Al Jackson is equally superb. If you like the Beatles and/or classic R&B, this is the album for you.

Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos (1992) The Memphis power pop and cult band Big Star only made three albums during their initial run, losing band members after each release. Guitarist and singer Chris Bell was the first to exit. I Am the Cosmos collects the songs Bell made in the mid-‘70s after leaving Big Star, with many tracks featuring his old bandmates. The only song on this collection that came out during Bell’s lifetime is the title number, which never came near the charts but grew so large in the Big Star lore that the band started performing it when they regrouped in the 1990s. The music is raw and vulnerable and in addition to displaying the power pop chops of Big Star also points the way to introspective indie rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie. For proof, look no further than “Speed of Sound,” used masterfully in the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Big Star’s Third is hailed as the group’s lost masterpiece, but in many ways I Am the Cosmos is just as important and more accessible.

Elton John – Honky Chateau (1972) As Elton John’s first No. 1 album, Honky Chateau helped tip the pianist toward stardom. Everyone knows “Rocket Man” but the rest of the songs may be even better. “Hercules” is folk pop in the vein of early Cat Stevens, while “Slave” veers toward country. The deceptively bouncy “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” hides a lyric so caustic and cynical that Elvis Costello would blush. Ballads “Mellow” and “Salvation” are the type of song that would become overblown productions in a few years. They are great here in standard rock band arrangements.

The true gem for me is the wonderful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” which I first heard in Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous. Yeah, I know I’m not breaking any stereotypes about music nerds here. Want to come over and help me arrange my albums autobiographically? We can look for inside jokes in the liner notes.

Review: Banks and Steelz

(Above: The RZA and Paul Banks tear down the Tank Room in Kansas City, Mo. with “Giant.” The frenetic performance literally had the floor shaking.) 

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

As the guitarist and singer for Interpol and mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan, Paul Banks and the RZA, a.k.a. Bobby Steelz, have filled and commanded spaces far bigger than the intimate Tank Room. Wednesday night, the duo treated a sold-out crowd to a masterful mashup of indie rock and hip-hop.

The seemingly disparate musical approaches have driven each artist to deliver some of their best work. On party tracks like “Sword in the Stone,” Banks’ soulful indie rock chorus played off RZA’s aggressive verses. Other times, formula reversed itself when RZA’s insistent contribution punctuated Banks moody vocals.

banks-steelzThe hourlong set comprised all but one song of the duo’s debut album, and ignored their other groups. The night started with the soulful yet ominous “Point of View” before exploding with “Ana Electronic.” Fans may not have been able to sing every word, but they had no problem swaying to the beat.

The room reached fever pitch with “Giant,” the album’s lead track, which has been generating airplay and online buzz. As Banks sang “everything is shaking through the walls” on the chorus, the floor was literally pulsing with the rhythms of everyone dancing.

RZA took the stage holding a large bottle of vodka. After several liberal pulls, he distributed cups along the front row and filled them before passing the bottle into the crowd. Later in the show, he popped open a bottle of champagne and sprayed the room.

A woman on the front row and her companion were singled out by RZA to set up “Can’t Hardly Feel,” a song about loving someone who belongs to another.

While the RZA had the flash and energy to command attention, it was in moments like this that Banks quietly stole the spotlight. His plaintive tenor drove not only “Can’t Hardly Feel,” but the philosophical “One by One” and the potent “Speedway Sonora.”

Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick supported the duo, turning the group into an all-star trio. His tight bossa nova rhythms anchored the song “Wild Season” and showed why RZA later called him the human drum machine. The three stretched out instrumentally only once, during “Conceal,” when Banks’ lengthy guitar solo gave way to RZA’s keyboard/organ.

Setlist: Point of View, Ana Electronic, Love and War, Sword in the Stone, Wild Season, Conceal, Speedway Sonora, One By One, Can’t Hardly Feel, Giant, Anything but Words.

Keep reading

Review: Snoop Dogg with Method Man and Redman

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

Peter, Bjorn and John Heart Hip Hop

 

Review Roundup – Rakim, Dodos, Naomi Shelton, Blakroc and Daptone Gold

(Above: The title song from Naomi Shelton’s debut album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first month of 2010 is almost in the history books. Fortunately, there’s still time to take one last look at some overlooked releases from the final quarter of 2009.

The Dodos – “Time to Die”

The Dodos third album isn’t a major departure from 2007’s “Visiter.” Several subtle elements, however, make “Time to Die” an improvement. First off, the San Francisco-based indie duo has added vibraphonist Keaton Snyder to their ranks. His playing adds new textures and new rhythms to the songs. Like Vampire Weekend, the Dodos add elements of African music to their arrangements. Unlike Vampire Weekend, though, the Dodos don’t use world music as a template. They incorporate its ingredient into already solid songs. At times the album recalls a more sophisticated Shins. “Time To Die” is filled with a high sense of melody and smart indie rock songwriting bolstered by intricate arrangements that serve the song.

Blakroc – “Blakroc”

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been making great garage blues albums for nearly a decade as the Black Keys. After about five albums, however, some staleness started to creep into the formula. After recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their 2008 release, and Auerbach’s early ’09 solo album, the pair dropped their biggest transformation. “Blakroc” pairs the Keys with former Roc-a-fella co-owner Damon Dash and a host of MCs, including Mos Def, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch and members of the Wu Tang Clan. The result is the expected mash-up of rap vocals and raw gutbucket rock that exceeds expectations. Auerbach’s dirty, fuzzy guitars and Carney’s drums add an urgency often lacking in the urban world of sampling. In turn, the MCs feed off the vibe, responding with more bounce and personality in their delivery. More, please.

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens – “What Have You Done, My Brother?”

Naomi Shelton’s back story should sound familiar to fans of Bettye LaVette. Shelton palled around with pre-fame Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Lou Rawls. Despite their encouragement, success eluded Shelton, who played regular gigs around New York City. Thirty years later, Shelton became part of the “Daptone Super-Soul Revue,” but it took another decade for her debut album to emerge. “What Have You Done, My Brother?” is a classic gospel album that sounds like it could have been cut 50 years ago. Despite its traditional arrangements, the album finds contemporary resonance in the title song, which questions the war in Iraq. Shelton’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is especially poignant. A survivor of the civil rights movement, Shelton combines the longing of Cooke’s vision with the optimism of the Obama-era.

Various Artists – “Daptone Gold”

Daptone Records found fame with the diminutive dynamite Sharon Jones, but the entire stable should appeal to Jones’ fans. “Daptone Gold” is a 22-track sampler of the Daptone roster. While Jones is appropriately represented (sometimes through non-album tracks), there are no bum cuts. The old school gospel of Naomi Shelton sets nicely next to Antibalas’ political Afrobeat and the instrumental soul of the Budos Band. Other artists include Stax throwbacks Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. Hip hop fans will recognize “Make the Road By Walking,” the Menahan Street Band track Jay-Z smartly sampled for his own “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).” At 78 minutes, this generous sampler will certainly send newcomers diving into the back catalog for more.

Rakim – “The Seventh Seal”

Rakim made his name as one of rap’s premier MCs with his groundbreaking albums with Eric B in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s been 10 years since the world has heard anything from Rakim. During that decade he toured sporadically and signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. The prospect of Dre making beats for Rakim made fans salivate, but unfortunately “The Seventh Seal” is not that long-awaited album. It’s difficult to forget about that hypothetical masterpiece with all the b-list production that plagues “The Seventh Seal.” Rakim sports enough killer flow to justify his reputation, but tracks like “Won’t Be Long” and album opener “How To Emcee” are more stilted and dated than anything on “Paid in Full” or “Follow the Leader.” While there are enough moments on “The Seventh Seal” to make it a must-have for old school fans, casual listeners should probably just ask the devoted to cull a few cuts from this for a killer Rakim mixtape.

(Below: “Holy Are You,” one of the better cuts off Rakim’s “The Seventh Seal.”)

Keep Reading:

More album reviews from The Daily Record.

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

(Above: Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ are one of many artists to get some love in a recent Oxford American music writing anthology.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Oxford American “Southern Music Issue” is an annual treat, loaded with great writing that unearths wonderful stories on longtime favorites and introduces several new discoveries. Coupled with a CD – in recent years it’s come with two discs – the magazine effectively serves as the ultimate set of liner notes to a killer compilation.

Now in its 11th year, these editions are been rightfully prized; back issues frequently fetch more triple face value online. Fortunately, there is a more affordable way for new readers to access the previously published essays and features.

The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing compiles the best articles from the magazine’s first decade. The 420-page book reads like a mixtape, transitioning smoothly from all the usual suspects – blues, country, jazz, rock and bluegrass – and spiking the playlist with pieces on Southern metal, the Sex Pistols and the art of playing.

Several of the best features provide an intimate view of the artist or their environment. Tom Piazza’s account on hanging out backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry with snubbed bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin is so awkward Ricky Gervais could turn it into a screenplay. Similarly, John Lewis’ weekend at Ike Turner’s house puts the much-savaged abuser in new light, particularly when the host shows up in his pajamas at the end of the day to thank Lewis for coming and hug him goodnight.

A history of jazzman Bob Dorough by Paul Reyes takes us from the obscure keyboard player’s origins touring with Sugar Ray Robinson, recording “Blue Xmas” with a dismissive Mile Davis and ultimately as the force behind Schoolhouse Rocks. The line from “Up a Lazy River” to “Conjunction Junction” was never so clear.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s description of a night at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint with R.L. Burnside and Cynthia Shearer’s search for understanding in Janis Joplin’s hometown of Port Arthur, Texas both paint a clear picture of the artists’ native perspectives. One can feel the plywood sweat at Junior’s Place and imagine Joplin longing for some niche in town where she felt comfortable and ultimately yearning to get the heck out.

Despite a mention of Wu Tang Clan producer RZA in the introduction, the book eschews hip hop and most new music. A dated piece on R.E.M. circa “Automatic for the People” is the only time when the mainstream and the modern intersect. But while the book doesn’t touch on modern artists, it will certainly send readers scrambling back to dusty old platters, either on vinyl, acetate or plastic, to unearth old favorites, possibly for the first time.

Easier to carry than a stack of magazines, less trouble to hunt down online, the Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing will be a pleasant voyage for adventurous fans of both good writing and good music.

Review: Snoop Dogg with Method Man and Redman

 (Above: Snoop Dogg performs a medley of old hits on Nov. 6 at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
The revue that brought rappers Snoop Dogg, Method Man and Redman to the Voodoo Lounge on Friday was called the “Wonderland High School Tour.” The promoters should have inserted the word “reunion.”

Hip-hop has turned the corner as a genre. Its former disposable nature and willingness to discard any artist who dared to fall behind a trend, regardless of their past successes, has shifted to establishing legacy artists.

Despite releasing new –- and very good –- material, the three artists were more than happy to trade on their old numbers for most of the evening’s performances.

The sold-out crowd couldn’t have been happier.

After opening with a trio of cuts from his new album-length collaboration with Redman, “Blackout! 2,” including the excellent singles “A-Yo” and “City Lights,” sometime Wu-Tang Clan MC Method Man announced his intentions.

“We want to take this back to when hip-hop was good,” he declared, before launching into Redman’s 1992 song “Time 4 Sum Aksion.” That was followed by Meth’s signature song, the 1993 Wu-Tang classic “Method Man.”

A couple hours later, Snoop Dogg echoed the sentiment. Asking the crowd who came to hear the “classic stuff,” he beamed when the audience erupted in screams.

Snoop opened his 80-minute set with “The Next Episode.” The five-piece backing band added muscle and intensity to Dr. Dre’s nimble arrangements. The hits “P.I.M.P.,” originally recorded with 50 Cent in 2003, and 1993’s breakthrough “Gin and Juice” followed, sending the audience into ecstasy.

Snoop was so enamored with his early ‘90s, Death Row heyday he brought out Lady of Rage to deliver her part on a song from “Doggystyle,” Snoop’s debut album, and her one hit, “Afro-Puffs.”

Rage has been missing in action for better than a decade, but everyone sang along to her hit like Newt Gingrich had just announced the Contract with America. Snoop was all smiles, slinking around the stage and working the crowd as Rage took the spotlight.

The Death Row glory days connection was reinforced when Snoop paid tribute to 2Pac with a performance of “Hail Mary.”

There were some concessions to newer material. “Riding in My Chevy” was well received, but the magnificent “Drop It Like It’s Hot” was tethered to a cover of House of Pain’s 1992 hit “Jump Around.” Why did Snoop feel he needed to attach his song to a one-hit wonder? Also a mystery is why Snoop chose to ignore his upcoming album except for a quick plug at the end of the set.

At any rate, “Hot” was the finest musical moment of the night. The full band fleshed out the bare-bones album arrangement, adding deeper bass and bigger bass. The performance gradually built in intensity until both band and crowd alike were flat-out rocking.

The biggest problem with Snoop’s set was his over-reliance on back-up MCs Kurupt and Daz Dillinger. Their solo turns took time away from other song Snoop could have performed and their backing role was the equivalent of Garrett Morris delivering the news for the hearing impaired on Saturday Night Live.

A medley of “Deep Cover,” “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” and “B— Please” went off like a flash pot. A delirious crowd devoured every beat, recited every syllable and danced furiously. It was the hip hop equivalent of “Jump” or even “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Snoop closed with another crowd-pleaser: “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)”

Snoop’s laid-back delivery and contentment to stroll and swagger across the stage stood in contrast to the kinetic energy of Method Man and Redman. The pair barely stood still throughout their hour-long set, delivery Wu-Tang favorites, solo cuts like “Bring the Pain” and “You’re All I Need To Get By” and the obligatory tribute to deceased Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

The duo was backed by frequent Wu-Tang producer Mathematics and DJ Nice and scored points with the pro-cannabis crowd by performing weed anthems “How High” and “Part II.” Marijuana was a reoccurring theme of the night. A pair of sheriffs camped on either side of the club entrance and the beginning of the night and a lingering presence later in the night quashed many would-be smokers. The dense clouds produced by the overhead smoke machines created enough cover for the rest.

The evening kicked off promptly at 8 p.m. with the only performer who wasn’t tied to the 1990s. Devin the Dude provided an hour of rhymes about women and weed. His base lyrics and laconic delivery found many fans in the crowd but were no match for what followed.

Peter, Bjorn and John Heart Hip Hop

(Above: Kanye West and Peter, Bjorn and John marry indie rock to hip hop in  “Young Folks.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The distance between whistling and beat-boxing shrank considerably once Kanye West got involved.

When West sampled Peter, Bjorn and John’s whistle-based sensation “Young Folks” for his mixtape, he not only united the worlds of indie rock and hip-hop, he also awakened Peter, Bjorn and John’s burgeoning love of urban music.

“When I first heard his version I thought it was a joke,” drummer John Eriksson said. “I didn’t think it’s strange, though, because a lot of hip-hop artists are trying to get more rock with a lot of electric guitars and the rest.”

West proved his indie rock cred when he asked the Swedish trio to perform the mashup during his set at the 2007 Way Out West festival. The collaboration helped open the band’s ears to new ways of presenting its music. The commercial follow-up to “Young Folks” was this year’s “Living Thing,” which disposed of guitars and traditional drumming and embraced icy synthesizers, spare arrangements and altered percussion.

“Many people think the drums on ‘Living Thing’ are programmed, but it’s not,” said Eriksson, whose band performs Friday night at the Granada in Lawrence. “Eighty percent of the sounds are acoustic but turned to make it sound like a drum machine or given a spaced-out, futuristic sound.”

Hip-hop wasn’t much of an influence when the band formed in 1999, but at the end of the “Living Thing” sessions, singer Peter Moren tried what would have been unthinkable 10 years ago and rapped an entire song.

“I didn’t think it was good enough (to make the album), so we tried to get someone else to do the vocals,” Eriksson said. “That’s how we met Mick Boogie, who helped us come up with the idea of having other people rap over all of our songs.”

The resulting remix album was dubbed “Re-Living Thing” and features original rhymes by GZA, Talib Kweli, Three 6 Mafia, Bun B and Rhymefest, with production from Jazzy Jeff, 6th Sense and Apple Juice Kid.

“I’ve only heard three versions so far. Jazzy Jeff did a fantastic job on his track, and I can’t wait to hear the others,” Eriksson said. “Knowing GZA from Wu Tang is on there makes me want to cry, almost. It seems surreal he’s doing something with one of our songs. I don’t know how Mick convinced him to take part. Maybe they played chess and Mick won.”

After the band released an online- and vinyl-only instrumental album last year and commissioned friends to make different arrangements of past singles for vinyl release, Eriksson feels like Peter, Bjorn and John fans should be up for anything.

“I think our fans are used to us doing weird, surprising stuff. A couple tracks on last year’s instrumental album have a Swedish narrative in the old dialect,” Eriksson said. “After five albums, by now people should be open to who we are. Maybe our next album will be trash-metal mixed with Stockhausen.”

Hesitant or curious fans won’t have to part with much to hear the results. “Re-Living Thing” will be released online today for free.

“That’s just how it works these days. Music is free,” Eriksson said. “When you make music, you don’t think about how to make money. Usually other people do that.”

Eriksson said most of the band’s money comes from licensing songs like “Young Folks” to TV shows and commercials. The corporate funds pay for the band’s creative ventures, like jazz and hip-hop remixes.

“When people ask us if they can use songs in commercials, we think about what the commercial is for. We won’t say yes to banks, McDonald’s and things we don’t agree with,” Eriksson said. “When it’s something we like — like TV shows, beer, maybe ice cream, stuff people need — we have no problem. It’s the only way we can make money. I wish we could sell albums, but most of our money is from that.”

Friday
Peter, Bjorn and John perform Friday night at the Granada, 1020 Massachusetts in Lawrence. Cowboy Indian Bear opens at 9 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $15. Visit www.thegranada.com.

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

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By Joel Francis

When RZA needed a hook for “C.R.E.A.M.” he turned to the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” and joined a large fraternity of rappers and producers who have leaned on the Stax catalog for their tracks. And though Stax has provided the samples for hits by Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G. and countless others, the source material has somehow remained in the secret province of crate-diggers.

Until now. “Stax: The Soul of Hip Hop” is 14 wonderfully selected, mostly obscure late-period Stax cuts released as part of Concord Record’s revitalization of the label. It’s unlikely that many Ghostface Killah fans listening to “Supreme Clientele” would have the urge to track down the source material for “The Grain.” But listening to Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Penguin” on this compilation not only sheds light on the music that informed Ghostface – it’s fun enough to make the album more than a history lesson.

It’s great if De La Soul and Cypress Hill are the reasons these song sound familiar, but the collection succeeds because it dusts off great songs that are ignored on most retrospectives. 24-Carat Black’s lone album was ignored in 1973. That album’s title track “Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth” opens this compilation with a slab of socially conscious funk. The female trio the Emotions found their greatest success with Earth, Wind and Fire in the late ‘70s, but “Blind Alley” shows they were fully formed pop soul act long before Maurice White helmed their albums.

The Dramatics’ “Get Up and Get Down” foreshadows the disco movement, while Little Milton’s “Packed Up and Took My Mind” is the marriage of soul and blues that Robert Cray has been chasing for 20 years. The inclusion of Isaac Hayes and Booker T. and the MGs tosses a bone to casual fans, although two Hayes cuts may be one too many.

The only misstep is a song that dates from Stax’ early days with Atlantic Records. Wendy Rene’s 1964 track “After the Laughter (Come Tears)” is an unconvincing ballad whose best quality is a great calliope organ line. Complaining about this cut, the extra Hayes track and the wish that the producers would have packed the disc with more tracks, though, misses the point and spoils a great treasure.

This set not only proves that the hip hop samplers had immaculate taste, but that they weren’t just cherry picking.  While they may have only mined 10 or 15 seconds from each track, the ore runs consistently deep through each performance.

If hip hop is the reason for this collection to exist and that marketing angle will draw those fans to this music, then so be it. But a celebration this fun doesn’t need an excuse.

Rage Rocks the Bells

Rock the Bells Zack

Public Enemy, Black Star, The Roots and Wu-Tang fight the Battle of the Bay in San Francisco

By Joel Francis

The Giants may have been out of town, but that didn’t stop the hits from pouring across McCovey Cove near ATT Stadium when the Rock the Bells festival landed in San Francisco last week.


It was a dream bill that 45,000 fans of ‘90s hip hop couldn’t resist, but with two stages of incredible lineups performing simultaneously some sacrifices had to be made. In the end, The Roots won over The Coup and Public Enemy trumped Blackalicious. Below are some of the day’s highlights.


Public Enemy

Public Enemy was raging against the machine before there was a Rage Against the Machine. Backed by a full band, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Terminator X showed that songs written during Reagan and Bush Sr. still had plenty of both relevance and resonance. The band did their best Rage tribute with a version of “Son of a Bush” that’s unlikely to win any fans at Fox News. That said, Chuck D probably knows he’s unlikely to win any new fans in the era of T.I., Chamillionaire and, shudder, Flavor of Love, so the band mostly stuck to songs off its groundbreaking initial albums like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” “Fight the Power,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” and “Public Enemy No. 1.” Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian popped out to lend his axe to “Bring the Noise” and Flavor Flav closed down the set with a performance of “911 Is A Joke” that had the crowd rapping along.


The Roots

As anyone who saw the Roots perform at the Voodoo Lounge last spring can attest, this Philadelphia-based band is one of the most engaging and entertaining performers in the business – regardless of genre. Giving the only 45 minutes was criminal, though predictably the band made the most of what they had. MC Black Thought and drummer/bandleader ?uestlove opened the set with drums-and-mic duet “Web” before the rest of the band and a three-piece horn section joined them. Every song was a highlight, but to watch the group transition from the hip hop beats of “The Next Movement”  to the funky rock of “The Seed 2.0” to the neo-soul flavors of “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” and finally a Philly soul cover of “I Can Understand It” was mind-bogglingly delicious.


Talib Kweli and Mos Def

Mos Def and Talib Kweli have only made one album together which was released nearly a decade ago, but they are still linked in most fans’ minds. There’s good reason for this, as each bring out the best in the other. Mos Def is one of the most improvisational MCs in the business, which is both a blessing and a curse. On his best nights, he rivals most jazz performers with his reworkings of song. On an off night, he comes across as bored. Kweli is one of the best MCs in the game (you don’t get props from Jay-Z on record for nothing) who keeps getting better, but can at times slip into auctioneer mode. Kweli keeps Mos from wandering off, while Mos pushes Kweli’s cadences.

Kweli opened the set on his own, teasing songs from his new album, “Ear Drum,” and launching into classics like “The Blast” and “Move Something,” before bringing out Strong Arm Steady and Jean Grae. Though the guests – especially Grae – were a nice surprise, Kweli was at his best when the DJ dropped out and let Kweli rhyme a cappella. Mos Def took the stage halfway through “Get By” and the results were as close to jazz as two men with a mic are likely to get. From there the duo segued into the classic “Definition,” “Supreme Supreme,” a newer collaboration, and “Respiration.”


Mos performed most of his set on the ground in the area between the stage and the crowd barricade after noticing the strong wind off the bay had the lighting rigs swaying like chandeliers. “It’s hard enough to be a black man in America,” he quipped. “I got kids, y’all.” Fortunately, video cameras and three giant screens kept Mos from being invisible at ground level as he worked his way through a set heavy on newer material. Mos closed with a great medley of “Ms. Fat Booty” and “Brown Skin Lady,” which brought Kweli back out and, finally, “Umi Says.”


Wu-Tang Clan

Hip hop as a live medium tends to get a bad rap (sorry) and acts like Wu-Tang Clan are Exhibit A on how something that sounds great on record doesn’t always transfer well to the stage. Part of the problem is the makeup of the group. There are nine MCs in the Clan, which can be a nightmare at the mixing board. Throughout the evening, each mic was mixed at a different level, rendering lots of vocals inaudible and resulting in something that sounded like loud choreographed chanting. Most songs could only be recognized by the sample or the chorus. Oddly enough the evening’s finest number, “Triumph,” had little in the way of either. Method Man carried the rest of the Clan on his back and carried the night (when he wasn’t crowd surfing and being carried by the crowd), which leaned heavily towards the group’s debut “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”


Rage Against the Machine

After seven years and nearly two presidential terms apart, Rage reclaimed the stage with a force and energy so powerful a S.W.A.T. team should have assembled. In between Wu-Tang and Rage’s sets, the crowd quickly morphed from a diverse, backpacker good-times gathering to a muscular, white frat-boy mosh pit. There was a mixture of menace and testosterone in the air as a crowd who had patiently waited through three Audioslave albums hungered for the return of the real thing.

They weren’t disappointed. Singer Zack De La Rocha led the band through over a dozen volatile indictments that included hits like “Bombtrack,” “Bulls on Parade” and “Guerilla Radio” with album cuts like “Bullet in the Head,” “Vietnow” and the Afrika Bambaataa cover “Renegades of Funk.” This was the musical equivalent of “Fight Club.”


As the festival closed, the defiant refrain of “Killing in the Name” hung in the air. Seven years was too long to wait, but the combustion of Rage’s 80-minute set made it understandable why these ingredients couldn’t be mixed too often.